Trinidad football’s anonymous victims - behind the iron curtain of Warner’s world
The 'Soca Warrriors' at the Carribbian Cup. Photo (c) Digicel
08.02.2011By Lasana Liburd
Two 20-something-year-old footballers strode briskly across the Hasely Crawford Stadium car park to greet a journalist with firm handshakes and cheery but brief smiles. Both men, who asked that their identities not be disclosed, are Trinidad and Tobago international players.
They are part of a group of 32 players who are still owed salaries for international matches in 2010. And, in the wider scheme of things, they are also victims of the systematic abuse of stakeholders in Trinidad and Tobago football—be they players, coaches, referees, club owners or what-have-you—that has gone on for close to four decades under the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA), its predecessor, the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF), and the de facto leader of both, FIFA vice-president Jack Warner.
It is nigh impossible to discuss football on any Caribbean island without mention of Warner.
Warner is everywhere
At one end of the Hasely Crawford Stadium, you can see the beautiful, lush Northern Range, which rises to as high as 940 metres (3,084 feet) at one point. At the other, behind the glitzy multiplex and shopping mall, is the Gulf of Paria that separates Trinidad from Venezuela.
In Trinidad and Tobago, one cannot drive for four hours in any direction, traffic permitting, without coming into contact with either the mountain range or the sea.
Culturally, the twin island republic, which has a population of 1.5 million, is a melting pot of international influences owing to its proximity to South America, close social and educational ties with North America and colonial links with Europe while it is home mainly to descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers.
For footballers, though, it still feels like a small, cramped island. No matter in what direction you attempt to go, you invariably find Warner blocking your path.
The “Soca Warriors”, as the national football team is styled, complained to the Sport Ministry about their unpaid wages. But then Warner is a senior member of the ruling coalition party and even acted as Prime Minister last year.
What about the Caribbean Football Union (CFU)? Or the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, CONCACAF, to which it answers? Warner is president of both.
And FIFA? Well, you get the idea.
“The governing body is who we are supposed to turn to when there is a problem,” said one player. “But what do you do when they are the ones who are victimizing you?”
“Who do we go to when things like this happen?” asked a member of the national team’s technical staff, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “That is a good question.”
He did not offer a suggestion.
No salary for technical staff since September 2009
While the players are owed money dating back to July 2010, 12 technical staff members have not seen a proper pay check since September 2009.
“At this stage, I would rather not be quoted on any matter because we feel we are on the verge of getting through,” said the staff member, “and we do not want to complicate anything. We do not believe this is a matter of straightforward accounting and I don’t want to put any new barriers to interfere with that.”
False promises, fear, victimization and emasculation—as evidenced by the 2006 World Cup players’ successful legal action against the TTFF and the organizing body’s routine blacklisting of players, coaches and administrators—are all tools of Warner’s trade and, after 38 years in the business, he wields them skilfully.
It is not the TTFF that is picking up this tab. The Sport Company of Trinidad and Tobago, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Sport, is mandated to foot their bills and, privately, officials told the aggrieved parties that the funds were available. They only need someone from the TTFF to sign on the dotted line before the payments can be processed through taxpayers’ money.
Yet, inexplicably, Warner stalls while grown men grovel.
“I cannot comment on the record,” said a Sport Company employee, who joined the list of anonymous spokespersons. “What we are doing is making payments based on instructions from the Minister of Sport (Anil Roberts).”
Oliver Camps, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF), admitted knowledge of the stand off between his organization and the players but insisted that he was not at liberty to discuss it.
“Any of these questions, you will have to ask (TTFF general secretary Richard) Groden,” said Camps. “I am aware of the problem but giving out information (on that) is Mr Groden’s responsibility.”
Attempts to contact Groden and Warner by telephone proved futile.
Last year, Sport Minister Anil Roberts, a swim coach and former radio and television talk show host, publicly endorsed Warner’s refusal to pay agreed bonuses to Trinidad and Tobago’s 2006 World Cup players. Although the matter remains in court, three judges have already ruled in favour of the players at the Sport Dispute Resolution Panel (SDRP) in London and before the Trinidad and Tobago High Court and Appeal Court.
Last month, in a separate matter, a fourth judge ordered Warner’s company, Le Sportel, to pay $7.5 million to Doc’s Engineering Ltd for breach of contract over the construction of his St Augustine hotel, Emerald Plaza.
Regardless, Warner continues to take only his own counsel on financial fair play.
In October 2009, the Soca Warriors ended an unsuccessful 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign with a 4-0 loss away to Costa Rica and a 2-2 draw against Mexico in Port of Spain. Warner disbanded the technical staff and declined to pay them for their final month’s work.
Five months later, he rehired the same group, led by head coach and former Porto and Glasgow Rangers playmaker Russell Latapy and manager David Muhammad. But not only were they not compensated for October 2009, according to one member, but they were not paid at all for nine months before being sacked.
Latapy and Muhammad allegedly received stipends in 2010 but, for the rest, there was not so much as an allowance.
“The last salary anyone got was in September 2009,” said the member. “There were always meetings (chaired by Warner) when we would hear we are going to be paid at the end of the week or next month or on our return from a trip or after the (government presented its) Budget…”
“Then we were told by the Sport Company that Richard Groden just has to come in and sign our accounting sheet and we would be paid. That was back on December 3rd (2010) but today is February 3rd (2011)…”
“It is so peculiar. No one could imagine it would go so far.”
A $437,255 bill still to be paid to the players
The players, who are negotiating for outstanding payments separately, told a similar tale.
Last December, when their frustration finally boiled over into the media, the TTFF owed the Warriors a combined total of $1,193,430 (Trinidad and Tobago dollars, see note). The players were then paid $499,275 and, after some more begging, received a further $256,900.
But there is still an outstanding $437,255 bill and several senior players are owed upwards of $25,000. They hope another embarrassing story might provoke an additional payout.
The seemingly arbitrary manner in which the match fees were arrived at is as startling as the balance sheet that the players handed over.
The team manager would meet the players before an international outing and tell them what money his own employer, the TTFF, was prepared to offer.
For a friendly against Jamaica, the offer was $6,242. For a home fixture against Antigua and Barbuda, it was $312 allowance per day but no match fee, a grand total of $1,248. A trip to Belize earned $3,120.
For Caribbean Cup preliminary level matches, they were offered $6,242 per win, $3,120 per draw and $1,560 for a loss while, at the Caribbean Cup finals, the fee was $9,363 for a win, $6,242 for a draw and $3,120 for a loss.
“One or two players grumbled,” a third player told Play the Game by telephone, “but we felt that if we argued we might end up with nothing so we decided to go with that.”
Both players and technical staff verified the match fees on offer.
Yet, even with the entire negotiating process hopelessly skewed in its favour, the TTFF, according to the players, did not keep its word.
The players were initially not paid for two Caribbean Cup final defeats or friendly losses against Jamaica while figures were fiddled at whim. Instead of $9,363 for a Caribbean Cup final win over Martinique and $6,242 for three successive Caribbean Cup preliminary wins, they received just $500 per win and not one black cent for losses.
The players’ per diem for Antigua was halved. They received a quarter of the agreed sum for two Jamaica friendly matches.
At the Caribbean Cup finals in Martinique, incidentally, Trinidad and Tobago failed to qualify for the knockout stages for only the second time in its history.
“They complained about the players’ performances,” said the telephone-using Warrior, “but what you sow is what you reap. Not that we go out to play badly but there is a God above…"
“Why is it we always have to fight for what is rightfully ours? Everyone is so afraid of Jack (Warner) and it is overbearing.”
Minutes after our telephone interview, the player joined the lengthening list of anonymous dissidents, as he called back to say that his local club manager had advised him to keep his identity secret.
In the Hasely Crawford car park, two other frustrated young men pleaded for justice.
“The TTFF never live up to their end of the bargain,” said one player. “We just want to be paid what they said was entitled to us, even if it was just one dollar…"
“How can Jack say (after the fact) he isn’t paying any money for losses or he is giving us less for certain matches? If they want to make the 2014 World Cup a priority, they have to change their relationship with the players.”
Limited support and Warner’s hostility stalled establishment of football union
Shaka Hislop, the former president of the now dormant Football Players Association of Trinidad and Tobago (FPATT) and ex-England Premiership goalkeeper, sympathized with the players—most of whom had not joined his union.
“Quite clearly, this is a case where the TTFF is abusing the players’ loyalty to their country and passion for the sport,” said Hislop. “I don’t think people could do this and get away with it so easily anywhere else. This is their livelihood and they are in limbo and have no idea when they will be paid.”
Hislop, who now works as a commentator for sport television station ESPN, is among the World Cup players locked in a court battle with the TTFF. He explained that efforts at creating the country’s first football union stalled owing to a lack of support from players and Warner’s open hostility.
“It was hard convincing local football bodies and players about the benefit of FPATT,” said Hislop. “There were rumours that FPATT was being formed to fund our court case while some players felt if they joined they would be victimized and blacklisted…”
“For these players, the national team is a chance to earn extra money and get international exposure and they didn’t feel it was worth the risk to join FPATT. Hindsight is 20/20 though and they probably see the need for FPATT now.”
The anonymous quartet of players and the technical staff member had no idea about what to do next or how they might help transform the relationship between the national players and administrators.
“We always try to solve things in an amicable way but it proves futile,” said one player. “They are not people of their word and they are not to be trusted.”
Getting justice entails too great a risk
Voltaire, the late French philosopher, once said that “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere”.
Warner, a former history teacher, knows a thing or two about exploitation and footballers, enslaved to their passion for the game and made vulnerable by the shortness of athletic careers, are in a disadvantageous position.
In 2006, he famously attempted to profit from Trinidad and Tobago’s patriotism by diverting the country’s allocation of 2006 World Cup tickets into his family-owned company, Simpaul Travel, before selling to his compatriots at more than five times the market value.
Two months ago, Warner was in the spotlight again after, having accepted the FA’s gifts, he allegedly broke a promise to British Prime Minister David Cameron and Prince William to support England’s 2018 World Cup bid.
Almost three dozen young athletes and another dozen administrators hope for empathy from TTFF’s Port of Spain headquarters although there has been little evidence of it over the years.
For now, none of the aggrieved—not players, technical staff members or Sport Ministry employees—is willing to stick his own neck out for justice and chose to remain behind a cloak of anonymity. The risk simply seems too great.
People who always think that everything will turn out fine, according to American writer and journalist Julia Michaels, are less likely to push for much-needed change.
On that evening, a combination of hope and fear allowed a fragile peace to endure in Warner’s world.
Editor’s Note: The present exchange rate is US$1 to TT$6.26. All figures are quoted in TT dollars.